Smile Politely

The Cycle of life

Dan Kamberelis of Neutral Cycle Workshop likes to understand and know how to maintain the systems on which he depends.

That’s why he grows his own vegetables, why he disconnected the pipes to the sinks in his house, and why he decided to learn to fix bicycles. 

“It’s not necessarily taught in our society how to take control of our basic needs: shelter, food, water — none of that is really taught in our mandatory education,” he says.

Before his bike shop became his main source of income (he charges enough to pay himself $10 an hour), Dan was working in restaurants to get by.

Then he and friends Tim Chao and Isaac Tan began toying with the idea of starting a bike shop because of the amount of work they were doing just helping friends fix their bikes.

Neutral Cycle became an official business in November 2012, but the founders have been fixing bikes out of the garage for the past five years.

Around 11 a.m. Monday through Friday, Dan goes to work in his garage; he throws some logs in the wood stove, puts on some music and starts tinkering with bikes with Joe Scarbro, who also works at the shop.

Not many people want to ride away with a new bike in the middle of winter, so Dan and Joe are busy making repairs and building up an inventory for spring. They often receive donations of damaged bikes or bikes that people have abandoned.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” Dan asks as he walks toward the ornate teapot warming atop the wood stove.

“It’s very hot.” He says, handing me a cup as he hums along to “Three Little Birds.”

The Neutral Cycle website states: “Our personal journey for independence is foremost a discovery and realization of ourselves, yet also a process that leads us to love and care for one another. Neutral Cycle Workshop was founded through this realization.”

Tim Chao, Isaac Tan and Daniel Kamberelis wrote that mission statement back when there were no bike stands in the garage of 201 N Busey — just a desk that served as an operating table for broken bikes.

Over time, the shop has transformed from a drafty, leaky garage into an eclectic but precise workspace complete with a wood stove that keeps the place surprisingly warm, bike seats-turned-chairs, and two friendly hounds, Pariah and Tomi. 

“Pariah is the original St. Jude dog,” Joe says. “St. Jude is like the saint of the outcast and downtrodden, so the dog is the ambassador to the downtrodden; she just loves to spread her love to the world.”

The laid back, out-of-the-garage vibe that Neutral Cycle naturally exudes is something that many larger bike shops would probably love to successfully emulate.

The shop is a true community collaboration involving artists, who created the logo and captured the pictures on the walls, craftsmen and engineers, who design and create custom products like bike seats and cup holders, and educators, who teach general bike maintenance and safety.

The community feel extends beyond the garage to the way Dan and his roommates live.

Every Sunday they cook a huge vegan dinner made from unsellable Co-op produce and perfectly edible food from grocery dumpsters. The dinners are free and everyone is welcome.

“We have an open kitchen, as in free to use and modify as they see fit and it’s open to all, so with that sort of attitude, a lot of people just bring food over all the time,” Dan says.

“People can come there and cook or people can come and know there’s food available to eat. So just this open, communal food attitude that we’ve cultured here, has made dumpster diving less of a necessity, so a lot of times we’ll just go to Strawberry Fields on a bike, which is very close.”

It seems that bikes have solved many of life’s common problems for Dan. Bikes are his living, his transportation, what he uses to carry food during the weekly dumpster diving trips, and the primary way he socializes with people.

“And I think for me, anyway, physical health plays a lot into my mental health as well,” he says.

Dan says Champaign-Urbana is a relatively bike-friendly town, not necessarily because of the bike paths or attitude toward biking, but because the city is such a perfect size for a bike – you can get anywhere in 15 minutes.

Neutral Cycle has gotten a lot of people on bicycles that otherwise wouldn’t because they couldn’t afford to keep it maintained.

Graduate student Handrea Logis got her first bike at Neutral when she came to Champaign from Korea for school.

“The shop is very comfy and homey and they’re really passionate about bikes,” Handrea says. “Usually I’ll ask about one thing and they’ll check everything without charge.”

Handrea was one of Neutral Cycle’s first customers and Tim built her a custom bike with blue and yellow cables that she still brings in for check ups and upgrades to this day.

There are several advantages to custom-built bikes.

“The cool thing about a hand-built wheel is that it’ll never break or go out of true unless you get in an accident,” Dan says. “So you never have to service your wheels for like 20 years, which is not that case for factory assembled wheels.”

Today has been interesting for Dan. He had a meeting with a guy who wanted to sell him life insurance.

The man asked if he’d thought about how the business would change if he were to die in a freak accident.

“Soy aqui, soy ahora,” Dan says, shaking his head in exasperation.

“I am here, I am now. That’s kind of my mantra.”

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